License Renewed: “Spectre”

November 11, 2015


If you’ve followed this blog even casually, you know that I’m a James Bond superfan and roundly consider the Daniel Craig installments to be a human achievement roughly on par with the pyramids, Hoover Dam, and, well, democracy. And you would be right to assume that I might not be the most impartial of critics when it comes to James Bond movies. I will admit that if Spectre, the 24 entry in the James Bond franchise, consisted of nothing but 120 minutes of Daniel Craig reading aloud from a Nicolas Sparks novel and punching a dolphin in the face I’d probably leave the theater thinking, Well that was a bold direction to take the character and then immediately buy the limited edition Omega watch.

Still, I’d like to think my love for the franchise also gives me a keen sense of what should and should not be in a Bond movie. And Spectre pretty much gives us mostly the former with a little of the latter.

“Are you ready to get back to work?”

“With pleasure, M. With pleasure.”

That exchange—the last lines of dialogue before the triumphant horns blare Monty Norman’s James Bond theme—ended the previous 007 entry, Skyfall, with both a declaration and a promise: Bond was back, and Bond would be back. Of course, Daniel Craig owned the Bond role from his first scene in Casino Royale, but closing Skyfall in the familiar mahogany-appointed office with the padded door told us that now–having introduced a mop-topped hacker Q and a tougher, more action-oriented Moneypenny–the 007 franchise would steer away from the stripped-down post-9/11 aesthetics that characterized Craig’s first two adventures and back to the familiar formula. Spectre does exactly that.

Somehow I get the feeling any boat ride with 007 ends this way.

Somehow I get the feeling any boat ride with 007 ends this way.

This film opens perfectly: i.e. with the traditional 007 gunbarrel sequence. This leads into a bravura pre-credits sequence set at a Day of the Dead street carnival in Mexico City. As with all things 007, this sequence involves a beautiful woman, gunplay, massive explosions, and, for good measure, a helicopter doing things that are nearly aerodynamically impossible. On top of that it features an amazing, seemingly uninterrupted tracking shot that can’t be seen as anything other than a bit of swagger from returning director Sam Mendes.

Any movie that starts with her is already off to a good start.

Any movie that starts with her is already off to a good start.

After the requisite title sequence, we hit all the familiar notes: Bond has a meeting with M, meets with Q, then heads off on his next adventure. This one has Bond investigating a shadowy cabal known as SPECTRE, and if you’re familiar with the canon you know that SPECTRE is a global crime syndicate that specializes in supervillains with fondness for secret lairs and a penchant for killing its own members. Rest assured, we get both here.

Heading SPECTRE, as we all know, is a sinister megalomaniac named Ernst Stavro Blofeld. And, yes, Blofeld is here, too. Bond’s pursuit of Blofeld takes him to the Austrian mountains, a sinister Italian estate, and a bizarre compound in North Africa. Along the way he confronts his old nemesis Mr. White (last seen plucked from MI6’s clutches in Quantum of Solace), romances an Italian widow (the ravishing Monica Bellucci), and an enigmatic doctor (the gorgeous Lea Seydoux), and eventually forces him to face an old, buried secret. He also tangles with a menacing, bruiser of a hitman named Mr. Hinx (David Bautista, doing some great, understated work), sucks down martinis, wears great suits, and tools around in an Aston Martin that somehow manages to be sexier than the female leads.

Well, almost sexier.

Well, almost sexier.

In other words, it’s formula Bond. And in my book that’s just fine. Spectre has gotten a lot of flack from critics (particularly American film critics) for just this formula, but I come down strictly on the side of the traditional Bond elements. Look, when I order a steak dinner, I expect a slab of dead cow flanked by a big potato and some vegetables I can ignore. The fact that it’s a predictable meal doesn’t make the steak taste any different. The preparation does that. If I want a different dinner I’ll order something else off the menu. 

Casino Royale jettisoned most of these conventions as a course-correction from the increasingly-outlandish Brosnan installments. The fact that Spectre incorporates them does not—not!—make this film the second coming of Die Another Day. The fact is, these elements, as handled by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, deliver the goods. Even following the 53 year-old template, Spectre is still exciting, romantic, and engaging. The love scenes are genuinely sexy (if you’re not moved by the sight of Monica Belluci lazing on a bed in a corset and garters, you might be dead), and the action sequences hit on all cylinders—a fight scene staged on a series of train cars is genuinely gripping and suspenseful.

And this is why it's good to be James Bond.

And this is why it’s good to be James Bond.

As Bond, Daniel Craig continues to explore the character in ways his predecessors never did. Rather than wear Bond’s vices like a fashion accessory, Craig uses them as signifiers of a spiritual emptiness hinted at in Fleming’s books. Even his loyalty to his work seems at times to be a coping mechanism for a man well-aware of his personal incompleteness. This is used to bring some depth of emotion to his romance with Seydoux’s Madeline Swann. If their relationship doesn’t have the same chemistry as the one between Bond and Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, it’s still more substantial than most.

They're actually a pretty good match.

They’re actually a pretty good match.

Additionally, Spectre is simply a gorgeous movie. Roger Deakins’ transcendent cinematography is barely missed as Hoyte Van Hoytema serves up a visual palate so deep and rich you practically want to devour it. The nighttime car chase through Rome is easily the most gorgeous thing committed to film all year, and many of his scenes in the villain’s lair have a disorienting, dreamlike quality that harkens back to the avant garde set design of the Connery-era.

That said, Spectre suffers for its 150-plus minute run time. The first two thirds speed by, but like a runner who started the race too fast, the film begins to flag in its final act. A car/plane chase in the Austrian mountains is surprisingly conventional and uninspired (they should have made it a ski chase), and a character-building scene in Tangier drags things to a crawl without necessarily paying off the way the filmmakers seemed to have hoped.

Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.

Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.

If the film definitively falls down in any place it’s in the final action set piece. It looks great, and the action is staged well, but on the whole it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. It’s a disappointment compared to the narratively-clear and well-executed climaxes of the previous Bond films. Still, Bond films often tend to get ragged as they close on the finish line, so this too is part of the formula.

This picture has nothing to do with the preceding paragraph. It just looks cool.

This picture has nothing to do with the preceding paragraph. It just looks cool.

Spectre doesn’t top Skyfall, but I’m not sure it could. That film was damn near perfect, and had the benefit of using the franchise’s 50th anniversary to meditate on the passage of time—a weighty theme Spectre doesn’t have the luxury of exploring. Still, it’s a top-notch entry in the franchise. Bond is indeed back and giving us what we’ve come to expect. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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